The bus seemed to be on a slow crawl. As always, the minute it hit Central, the vehicle had joined a slew of others in this annoying every day occurrence. She wondered what would happen if there were no cars, or buses or trains. What would the world be like if everyone walked? Would we communicate more? Or hate each other more as the sea of bodies caused us to shuffle along, slowly like a mob after a football game. The thoughts exhausted her, especially as she had been on the bus for over an hour now; imagine being on foot from the outskirts of London.
When her stop rolled into view, her stomach clenched. The whirlwind of worry knotted her stomach into lumps. She felt her breakfast unravel and the queasiness was relentless, she sucked harder on the mint in hopes that it would relax her. But as she stepped off the bus, a whole host of scents hit her. There was the piss-stained alley streets, the smokers puffing away as soon as they get into air and the fast food restaurants churning out their usual repackaged “meat.” There was a bubble of illness inside Maria and in an instant, she grabbed her phone, hoping the nausea wouldn’t fade and she could phone in sick.
But it was too late for that. There was no point in that.
She couldn’t afford another black mark to her name.
Walking down the backstreets of Oxford Street (Cavendish Street? She couldn’t be sure.), she felt nervous with each step. At least this way, she wasn’t colliding with people. Every brush against her skin caused her to bristle and goose-bumps would crawl in fright. She had never felt more alone than when she was crashing into someone, politely excusing herself, only to find the person hadn’t even noticed and their collision was like a gnat bite. She could see them leaving behind all the little thoughts about her; the scent of her perfume was nothing to them. She hated it, she hated how she had become the air, to be inhaled and exhaled as quick as breath itself.
Maria shuddered at the thought.
The closer she drew to work, the louder the music came across the belligerent taxi’s honking away in rage. There was a strange sense of unfamiliarity with the journey she was taking to work. It was one she had done many times before, five years of it to be precise, but this time it was different. The streets were the same but it was here; a stranger on those once friendly pavements. And the music, music she had heard before, it felt hauntingly surreal. Like she was still dreaming.
But approaching the back doors of her shop, and searching for her key, she knew that it was terribly real and the nightmares would keep going. And she would have to keep pretending.
The act and play would begin as soon as she buzzed herself in. As the last remnants of her mint subsided in her mouth, she braced herself and began to grin.
“Hello Maria, are you feeling better?”
“I heard you were ill? I hope I don’t catch it.”
“Hasn’t been the same, glad to have you back.”
“I hope you are ok! Good to see you.”
“I hope you are 100% busy day today.”
Maria rushed to get ready. As she removed her coat, a brilliant shade of green crept out. Hemmed with a bright red and baubles dangling with cheery tinks, Maria stared at herself in the mirror as she slowly removed her hat and ears. There was nothing there to meet her, the hope had gone and as the pointy ears pinned against her own, she realised; her eyes had become too hollow. And pretending to be an elf, was the worst thing she could think of.
As she left the changing room, she walked straight into her boss who immediately looked her up and down in a quick inspection. Maria waited for the rant, the shouting over her time off or the cur but all her boss could manage was,
“It’s boiling, you are going to burn to death in those long sleeves.”
As he sauntered off, Maria realised she’d never thought about it. She was cold and had been freezing for a while. Even in the bright lights that filled unnecessary bouts of heat into the room, Maria still felt frozen. It was almost as if she really did leave this plane. Sighing, she took a daunting few steps onto the shop floor.
Or Santa’s Grotto, as it was now affectionately called.
Pulling her sleeves down, she knew, long sleeves were terribly vital today.
As an elf, she had been dancing and cheering all day. A little less enthusiastically, though, it was more of a shuffle and a murmur. When she ushered people into the grotto, it was a flap, already she was aware her boss was glaring. Maria needed something to pick her up, to hold onto. All these people, brushing by her, all those loved ones. A brim of tears lined her eyes. “Don’t fall,” she whispered, “Don’t do it.”
She felt a tug on her skirt and looked down to a picture of ringlets and curls. Instantly smiling, Maria bent down to the height of a child who was looking downtrodden and sad.
“What’s the matter lovely?” she said, in the cheeriest tone she owned, noticing a glaze of tears similar to hers on the child’s face. Maria swallowed her own hard. The little girl still had her hand clamped around the hemline of her skirt.
“Is Father Christmas scary?” whispered the innocent kid, “he is big and round and his voice is loud. Is he really scary?”
Maria’s heart sank. “What’s your name lovely?”
“Well, Sophie, I have known Father Christmas all my life, mind you, I am only five years old myself,” she winked at the girl. “And he is the kindest and bestest man I have ever known. He spends all his time treating kids. How could he be mean?”
“I guess so.”
“Sophie, if you are still scared would you like me to take you in to see him.” Maria said and stood up on her feet, “I shall escort you in like all Princess’ should be.”
“And,” Maria said, “if you are still worried, these mints are specially made by Father Christmas for me to stop me being scared. To tell you the truth, Sophie, I get frightened a lot. But these always help me, would you like one?”
Sophie turned around to get approval from her Mum, who was watched on the sidelines, recording the whole exchange. When, with a happy nod, her mother agreed, Sophie nodded enthusiastically. Maria reached into her pocket, shed the wrapping and gave one to her new friend who sucked happily as Maria gave herself another one.
Bending over slightly, Maria gave Sophie one of her arms. Sophie wrapped her little ones around it. Maria winced, the tightness causing a wave of pain, as the slight girl held onto something still tender and sore. But as Maria glanced down, she could see in the glistening eyes that excitement was breaking through the fear and the soft taste of mint.
And for the first time, in a long time, she felt the warmth.
Yes, she thought to herself, it was the little things that would get her through today.
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